Lebanese port blast investigator formally told he is removed

BEIRUT (AP) — The prosecutor investigating last year’s massive blast in Beirut was formally notified Friday that he would no longer lead an enquiry into last year’s deadly port explosion, state-run Lebanon’s National News Agency reported.

Thursday’s decision by the country’s highest court to remove Investigating Judge Fadi Sawwan came after legal challenges by senior officials he had accused of negligence that led to the blast, considered one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

The agency said Sawwan was officially informed about the Court of Cassation’s decision after he arrived at his office in Beirut on Friday morning. The Court called for a new investigating judge to be appointed to lead the probe, nearly six months after it started.

The move angered families of the victims of the Aug. 4, blast, some of whom held a protest in Beirut on Thursday. More sit-ins are planned for Friday. The families of the victims said Sawwan was removed as a result of political pressure.

The development is likely to further delay the investigation into the horrific explosion that killed 211 people, wounded over 6,000 and damaged much of Beirut. Families of the victims and survivors have accused the ruling political class of corruption and negligence that led to the explosion of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material used in fertilizers that had been stored in the port for years.

The explosion has been one of the most traumatic national experiences the Lebanese have faced. Family members of those killed are skeptical that any investigation into the explosion can be transparent and independent in a country where a culture of impunity has prevailed for decades.

Judge Sawwan had accused and summoned for questioning Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister and three former ministers on suspicion of negligence that led to the deadly explosion.

Two of the former ministers challenged Sawwan in court in December, accusing him of violating legal and constitutional procedures and asking that he be recused, a challenge that brought the probe to a halt. Last month, the Court of Cassation had asked Sawwan to resume his work while it looks into the complaints.

Details of Thursday’s decision were not made public but a copy of the 25-page decision leaked to the media showed the former ministers had accused Sawwan of disrespecting parliamentary immunity and argued that because his house was impacted by the explosion, he could not be impartial in the case.